Al Baleed

April 2009

Back to Oman page,
terug naar Oman page

The ruins of Al Baleed, Salalah, Dhofar, South Oman. Mainly archaeological description.



Dhofar, Salalah Region and location of Al Baleed. Topographic map taken from Google Maps.

Al Baleed Satellite image (taken from Google Maps). Notice the ruins of the old town on the rectangular 'island' delineated by the Arabian Sea to the south and Khor Al Baleed to the north and east. The visitor centre and museum are in the top centre along the Sultan Qaboos street. A bridge connects the visitor centre with the ruins.

Al Baleed site map with main ruins indicated, taken from location map by the RWTH University of Aachen, Germany who has been supporting the development of the site since 1995.

Introduction

We visited the magnificent ruins of Al Baleed during a short visit to Salalah in April 2009. The site is almost next door to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Arriving in the afternoon by plane from Muscat we asked the guards at the entrance of the Visitor Centre to be allowed to walk through the ruins before the normal opening times, normally at 16:00 hrs. You may want to do this the other way around as details about the site will only become clear after visiting the Museum. We found a visitor guidebook lacking and therefore hope this compilation will help others to better understand the piles of stones.

The scenery is lovely, but understanding what this site is all about will help you to appreciate it even more.

How to get there:
At the edge of Salalah, almost next to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The entrance to the visitor centre is at the Sultan Qaboos Street, signposted as the Visitor Centre of the Land of Frankincense. A visit to the museum is a must if you have visited -or plan to visit- archaeological sites in the area such as Khor Rori near Mirbat,

The extensive ruins of Al Baleed (also spelled as Al Balid) can be found in the southeastern corner of Salalah (Ad Dahariz Al Jubiyah) separated from it's green plantations by Khor Al Balid. Al Balid literally means the "town". It was built on a strategic position on a elongated beach-ridge with Khor Al Baleed providing a natural defence to the north and with the Arabian Sea at the other side. The city was rectangular in shape and was surrounded by a wall with three entry gates. 

The town was already mentioned by Ibn Batuta in the 13th century as one of the important Omani harbours, trading not only the Arabian Gold -the frankincense- but also horses and other goods to Indian harbours and beyond. The archaeological finds prove that there was intensive trade with China, latest beginning with the 9th century and litterally driven by the regular bi annual monsoon winds around India and through the Straits of Malacca.

The site has been partly excavated and is now accessible to the public (mornings and in afternoon after 16:00 hrs) as an archaeological park that is part of the Unesco Heritage Area designated as the "Land of Frankincense". The German Aachen University has been supporting the development of the archaeological park since 1995. It is the first archaeological park of the Arabian Peninsula,  inaugurated in November 2003 (Oman 2008 2009, Ministry of Information, 2009).

The entrance to Al Abaleed is along the Sultan Qaboos that straddles Salalah southern coastline. Near the entrance is a botanical garden with frankincense trees and examples of the trees and plants of the mountains of Dhofar. The site itself invites for a tour that has been set-up along a 2,2 kilometres long access path built on protective geo-textiles right through the ruins. A bridge spans the Khor al Baleed lagoon, providing access to the archaeological site. Signs explain the excavations along the path, the great mosque, the citadel, a graveyard mosque and some residential houses. The museum homes archaeological finds from across the region, including Sumhuram and Sishr (Ubar). It comprises two halls: a History Hall presenting a brief history of Oman depicting its cultural heritage over the ages; and a Maritime Hall containing models of Omani ships and other exhibits highlighting the country’s relationship with the sea. In addition to a multi-media room, the museum boasts a number of curio and handicraft shops, staffed and managed in co-operation with the Public Authority for Craft Industries. Other features include an example of an old Baleed house, a viewing tower, a platform for watching birds in Khor al Baleed lagoon and neighbouring lagoons, small boats for children and trips around the Khor.


Khor Al Baleed. Notice the beach bar, blocking the exit to the Arabian Sea.

Frankincense trees growing in a replica Frankincense groove near the visitor centre

Whether the Khor was actually used as a harbour is still uncertain, but it certainly would make a good one. Currently closed-off from the sea by a beach ridge it could open easily during the monsoon period and may be kept open with a bit of human help.

Dhofar is under the influence of the monsoon, with a rainy season from June to September (known as the Khareef) and in this time many wadi's will carry water. Beach ridges that built-up at the mouth of wadi in the dry season by longshore currents, can be broken by the masses of water unleashed in the wadi's and bursting through the beach ridges opening-up the Khor to the sea. During monsoon times the opened Khor would become brackish, whereas it could possibly freshen up when closed during the dry season.

Topographic studies clearly indicate that the settlement was surrounded by water at all sides.

The following description is largely taken from the Unesco World heritage site description of the Land of Frankincense as being the most easily and compresensive documentation currently available other than expensive and limited-editions of archaeological reports & publications.

Earlier descriptions include Carter (1846), Miles (1883), Bent (1900) and Thomas 1930. The area was first excavated in the 1950's by an American expedition led by Wendell Phillips (the American Foundation for the Study of Man, Phillips, 1966) which dug several trenches in the site and found what was believed to be the king palace and the city’s eastern gate. As the mission focused on the pre-Islam period, the site was deserted and excavations stopped and it was thought that it dated mainly to the Islamic period. In 1977 the ministry implemented field works at the site, subsequently published by Costa (1979). Since 1995 the Aachen RWTH University has been excavating the area. 

The site

Measuring approximately 1600 x 400 m, al-Baleed covers an area of 64 ha, not including the western estuaries beyond the moat where several ruined buildings and a large graveyard can be identified. Today the ruined city is a barren landscape of soft small hills covered by numerous small stones blocks, filling stones of former walls from which the large limestones have been taken away through the centuries of robbing. The highest hills rise to the west with the prominent feature of the former citadel measuring 60 x 60 m and rising to a height of more than 20 m. To the south of it stands the Great Mosque which has been fully excavated and restored during the past years. North to the citadel the former city wall foundations were traced which can be followed eastwards for hundreds of yards.


Unusual rectangular massive foundations at the edge of the northern harbour. Internal passages suggest it to be a defensive tower for the city. Other defensive towers in the city wall were round to semi-circular.

Al Baleed was famous for its many mosques, numbering over 50 as reported by Ibn Batuta in 1500 AD. These mosques typically are built on a raised platform on a terraced base and stone pillars that probably supported an arched superstructure

Acres of ancient ruins with still many standing octagonal columns, square corbelled base and capitals with fluted corners, one with fleur-de-lis pattern.

The Great Mosque

The original layout of the qibla-oriented Great Mosque shows a clear orthogonal structure of 40 m width and 48.5 m length surrounded by an outer platform on three sides except the eastern one where the ablution area lies. The visitors to the mosque normally entered from the eastern ablution area where a total of three entrances can be identified While the central entrance is precisely in the middle, facing the mihrab, the other two entrances are placed symmetrically to this central axis to the left and the right with an equal distance of 9 m each. This corresponds to the inner raster system of 12 by 13 columns at an equal distance of 3 m. Placing the eastern entrances between the 3rd and 4th, 6th and 7th, and 9th row counting from south to north. While the central entrance corresponds to the mihrab in the western wall, the southern and northern entrances correspond to entrances in the west, a phenomenon which has to be dealt with separately. In the eastern ablution area a squarish well (c. 1x1m) was found which in earlier days fed the different ablution chambers. Inside the mosque there was an inner courtyard which displaces an area of 15 m north-south and 12 m east-west. A common feature in the region are additional openings (entrances) in the southern and northern wall (at least three on each side) which primarily served cross ventilation for the cool sea breeze. A rare appearance are six entrances in the qibla wall allowing access from the west by staircases. The minaret was a squarish tower approximately 4 x 4 m in the north-east corner. While the stone pillars which support the substructure wall of the roof were built in octagonal form by limestone slabs, especially around the courtyard round monoliths were used. The pillars stood to an average of c. 2 m on which a squarish cushion block was resting. The upper part of the construction is unclear and may have consisted of either an arcade or a colonnade wall running north-south and supporting the roof. What so ever this form may have been, the inner space with its 144 columns, the high roof, and the light new courtyard must have been quite impressive. In later times the mosque underwent tremendous changes. Most probably due to the weakness of the construction, the north-east part close to the minaret collapsed and most of the mosque was closed. A partition wall was built between the columns of the third row counting from the west, leaving a passage between the 9th and 10th rows (from south) open which connected the ablution area still in use with the remaining prayer room of only three rows of columns. The minaret was shifted from the north-east corner to the corner at the 3rd row of columns. All of the side doors were blocked up and separation walls were constructed along the passage. The ablution area of the Great Mosque, to the east of the building, measures some 25 x 50 m. They served over a long period but the extant four-chambered block belongs to the late period of the mosque, by virtue of the building constructions. In the case of a nearby excavated funerary mosque and the Great Mosque, the washing facilities cater to a smaller number of people and are built using inferior materials and techniques. The final end of the mosque may have coincided with the abandonment of the settlement in the 16th century. 14C assays are expected to clarify the dates.

Top: Graveyard Mosque with in the distance the distinctive mound (tell) of the Al Baleed Citadel

 

To the right, one of the intricately carved gravestones that are scattered between the ruins

The Citadel

The citadel mound of Al-Balid is located in the north-west corner of site. To its south lies the small flat maydan (largest public square of the city) whilst south-east of the mound lies the Great Mosque. The badly plundered mound itself is a steep sided hill, roughly square in plan and covers 4900 square meters. It stands just over 13 m high and is covered by blackened rubble. In the north centre part of the mound is a significant depression which probably represents an open court surrounded by ranges of rooms on the east, west and south sides. The northern side is buttressed by semicircular bastions which are necessary owing to sandwich method of wall construction used. This kind of construction is typical of the site but for a single exception:  Positioned in the centre of the settlement, the area B fortification has a different orientation and deeper elevation than the majority of the buildings. Its materials and technique are superior to those in other parts of the site. The entire surface of the mound is pock marked by depressions which represent rooms on the east side and on the south and west sides are the remains of trenches dug by Sultan Said bin Taimur and later by F.P. Albright. The current excavations elucidate the north and north-east walls. City wall Three soundings, planned for March of 1998, were intended to shed light on the Pre-Islamic use of the site, particularly the city wall. Sounding 1 was placed some 40 m to the north-north-west of the citadel and 30 m south of the khor ,a steady and reliable source of sweet water. It lay just west of Albright’s trench B. Albright reports a corner of the city wall with its tower there. This year a second trench was to be placed toward the centre of the settlement of the site. A third trench was proposed for the east end of the site where Pre-Islamic coins are said to have been found. Sounding 1 shed light on one of the city walls to the north-west. The city wall is best known on the north side of the settlement. It has light foundations and in some places none. Noteworthy about new excavation is the observation of the stone city wall which shows two main phases of construction. Following its original construction, a new wall was erected next to it on the north face. This wall seems to have enclosed the centre of the town from the western part of the city. Whether the wall was finished remains to be seen. The eastern town gate (Costa 1979: 132 fig. 24) already mentioned by F.P. Albright is a complex of monumental construction. P. Costa notes the remains of gates in the middle of the southern side of the wall (c. 980E; 140N), a simple gateway not far from the sea side of the western khor (c. 490 E; 60 N), and an eastern gate, partly excavated by F. Albright. Area A, with its pillared bridge, lies in the maydan, which is located 100 m west of the Great Mosque. Costa’s investigation of Area A, west of the Great Mosque was intended to establish if a moat existed here and if it was natural or artificial. A second question is whether the moat was connected to the sea. Finally, the question remained regarding the function of the building to which the stone columns belonged (Costa 1979: 139 fig. 32).


Rounded columns, generally used around central courtyards of  Mosques

The large mound (tell) hiding the Citadel ruins in the NW corner of the ruin-fields.

History

Al-Balid is a historically late name for a place in the Mahra area transcribed with Latin letters as ,"Dhofaru" (Dhufar, Zafar, Zaf_r, etc.). This place lent its name to the surrounding area.  With one of the finest and most reliable sources of sweet water in the entire region, al-Balid must have been attractive for settlement during the quaternary age. This same situation holds for the Batinah coast which is and certainly was Oman’s most populated area. Up to now, the Iron Age settlement of al-Balid is known to us from stray finds, mostly pottery and a few lithics. Recent excavations reveal al Baleed’s origins date from pre-Islamic times and that it was a major population centre around 2000 years BC. It was a city of considerable importance during the late Iron Age and flourished during the Islamic periods. Prior to the Iron Age little information is available (Zarins, 2001).

The earliest known mention in this coastal area occurs with coordinates in the atlas of Claudius Ptolemaios of the 2nd century AD, although the settlement itself is not identifiable (Manteion Artimidos suggested by others?) Since Ptolemaios does not mention it, the name may not yet have existed here. The locations of antique place-names recorded in the Periplus Marus Erythraei and in Ptolemaios’s atlas were intensely discussed by the historical geographers of the later 19th century (Sprenger 1875: 92-97) looking for "Sabaeans" and ,"Himyarites". One reason for the confusion is that Raysut und Mirbat have harbours but for al-Balid, with its prominent archaeological remains, this is disputed.

As a result of revolt and disruptive invasions, the town lost its importance and the regional economy suffered. Prior to the 13th century AD signs of depopulation and decline are evident in the architecture, particularly that of the Great Mosque. By the late 15th century AD, the fate of the area was sealed by foreign sea powers, particularly the Portuguese, who changed the patterns of trade to their own advantage. In the sixteenth century it was partly destroyed by Portuguese squadron commanded by da Silveria.

Bent (1900) provides a colourful description with a lot of early context:

.....After a close examination of these ruined sites, there can be no doubt that those at spots called now Al Balad and Robat, about two miles east of the wali's residence, formed the ancient capital of this district. We visited them on Christmas Day, and were much struck with their extent. The chief ruins, those of Al Balad, are by the sea, around an acropolis some 100 feet in height. This part of the town was encircled by a moat still full of water, and in the centre, still connected with the sea, but almost silted up, is a tiny harbour. The ground is covered with the remains of Mohammedan mosques, and still more ancient SabŠan temples, the architecture of which—namely, the square columns with flutings at the four corners, and the step-like capitals—at once connects them architecturally with the[241] columns at Adulis on the Red Sea, those of Koloe and Aksum in Abyssinia, and those described by M. Arnaud at Mariaba in Yemen. In some cases these are decorated with intricate patterns, one of which is formed by the old SabŠan letters [Symbol: See page image] and X, which may possibly have some religious import. After seeing the ruins of Adulis and Koloe and the numerous temples or tombs with four isolated columns, no doubt can be entertained that the same people built them. As at Adulis and Koloe there were no inscriptions which could materially assist us; this may be partly accounted for by the subsequent Mohammedan occupation, when the temples were converted into mosques, but besides this the nature of the stone employed at all these places would make it very difficult to use it for inscribing letters: it is very coarse, and full of enormous fossils. This town of Al Balad by the sea is connected by a series of ruins with another town two miles inland, now called Robat, where the ground for many acres is covered with ancient remains; big cisterns and water-courses are here cut in the rock, and standing columns of the same architectural features are seen in every direction. With the aid of Sprenger's 'Alte Geographie Arabiens,' the best guide-book the traveller can take into this country, there is no difficulty in identifying this ancient capital of the frankincense country Manteion Artimidos of Claudius Ptolemy. This name is obviously a Greek translation of the SabŠan for some well-known oracle which anciently existed here, not far, as Ptolemy himself tells us, from Cape Risout. This name eventually became Zufar, from which the modern name of Dhofar is derived. In AD. 618 the town was destroyed and Mansura built, under which name the capital was known in early Mohammedan times. Various Arab geographers also assist us in this identification.[242] Yakut, for example, tells us how the Prince of Zufar had the monopoly of the frankincense trade, and punished with death any infringement of it. Ibn Batuta says that 'half a day's journey east of Mensura is Alakhaf, the abode of the Addites,' probably referring to the site of the oracle and the last stronghold of the ancient cult. Sprenger sums up the evidence of old writers by saying that the town of Zufar and the later Mansura must undoubtedly be the ruins of Al Balad. Thus, having assured ourselves of the locality of the ancient capital of the frankincense country Manteion Artimidos no other site along the plain has ruins which will at all compare in extent and appearance with those of Al Balad shall, as we proceed on our journey, find that other sites fall easily into their proper places, and an important verification of ancient geography and an old-world centre of commerce has been obtained. The ruins at Al Balad and Robat were last inhabited during the Persian occupation, about the time of the Crusades, 500 of the Hejira. They utilised the old Himyaritic columns to build their mosques. Some of the tombs have beautiful carving on them. In the ruins of one temple the columns were elaborately carved with a kind of fleur-de-lis pattern, and the bases decorated with a floral design, artistically interwoven.....

Even earlier is the report of Miles (1884)

Among the ruins with which the plain is interspersed the most extensive and interesting are those on the shore between El Hafah and El Dahareez, covering a space 2 miles in length. These ruins, now known as Al Baleyd, are believed by Sprenger to be the remains of the ancient Mansoora, but this name is unmentioned now in local tradition. The citadel, towers, and mosques are still standing in part, and the town wall and ditch can be distinctly traced. They have been measured and fully described by Carter. According to local tradition this city was founded by the Manijooi or Nejui dynasty, which rose to the height of its power in the fifth century of the Hijra. The esistence of this dynasty has been discredited by European orientalists, but without reason. The tombs of the Sultans near El Robat, a few of them exquisitely worked and inscribed by Persian or Sanaa artists, have been examined and copied. The prosperity of Mansoora was doubtless owing in great measure to the existence of a copious stream of perfectly sheet water which encircles the town on three sides. This stream, which is 4 or 5 fathoms deep, formerly communicated with the sea and formed a most excellent creek or harbour for dows and boats. It is now closed by a sand bar, but this only requires to be removed to render the port available for native vessels....."

References

Bent, T. & M., 1900, Southern Arabia. Smith Elder & Co., London

Carter, H.J., 1846, Descriptive account of the ruins at El Balad. Transactions of the Bombay Geographical Society.

Costa, P., 1979. The study of the city of Zafar (al-Balid). Journal of Oman Studies, Vol 5. (p.111)

Fox, C., 1947. The Geology and Mineral and other resources of Dhufar Province and other parts of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, South East Arabia. Published by the order of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and Dependencies

Hanna, S. and Al Belushi, M., 1996, Introduction to the Caves of Oman, published by the Sultan Qaboos University, International Printing Press, Ruwi, Sultanate of Oman.

Miles, 1884, Administration Report of the Persian Gulf Political Residency and Muscat Political Agency, 1884-1885. In: Ward, P., 1987, Travels in Oman, Oleander Press, Cambridge, England. p 490-493.

Oman 2008 2009, published by the Ministry of Information, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman

Phillips, W., 1966. Unknown Oman. David McKay Company, Inc, New York, p. 319.

Radcliffe-Smith, A., 1977. The vegetation of Dhofar. In: The Scientific Results of the Oman Flora and fauna Survey. The Journal of Oman Studies, special report no.2, p 59-87.

Unesco World heritage Site description of the Land of Frankincense 2000.  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1010

Zarins, J., 2001. The land of Incense; Archaological work in the Governorate of Dhofar. Sultanate of Oman 1990-1995. Sultan Qaboos University Publicatios. Archaeology & cultural heritage Series Vol. 1

Back to home page

Terug naar home page


@ J. Schreurs April 2009